Tom Bonnell’s Tips on Finding a Private School for Your Child: What is the school’s mission? A good private school should have a mission statement that says succinctly and clearly what its purpose is and what the most important goals it wants to accomplish with its students are. Along with academic goals, it will frequently mention the moral values it hopes to impart to its students as well as religious goals if it is a faith-based school. Like the North Star, the mission of a school is an understanding and purpose that unites faculty, parents, and students and guides them towards a common destination. If a school’s mission statement does not speak to you or you are uncomfortable with it, cross that school off your list.http://tombonnell.wordpress.com/
By Tom Bonnell
Choosing a school for your child has perhaps never seemed as difficult as it currently is for one simple reason: there are more choices than ever. In addition to regular public schools and the traditional private and parochial schools, many communities now offer public magnet schools, charter schools, and a whole host of new private schools coming on the seen, frequently faith-based schools. With all the choices a parent now has, the search for the right one for your child can seem not only confusing, but time-consuming and exhausting.
The important thing in finding a private school for your child is not necessarily finding one that will be “the right school,” but one that will be a good match between the kind of education a school offers, the needs of your child, and your own aspirations for your child’s education. Here are some questions that can help guide you through that process.
1. What is the school’s mission?
A good private school should have a mission statement that says succinctly and clearly what its purpose is and what the most important goals it wants to accomplish with its students are. Along with academic goals, it will frequently mention the moral values it hopes to impart to its students as well as religious goals if it is a faith-based school. Like the North Star, the mission of a school is an understanding and purpose that unites faculty, parents, and students and guides them towards a common destination. If a school’s mission statement does not speak to you or you are uncomfortable with it, cross that school off your list.
2. What Range of Students Is the School Designed to Serve?
Although all teachers are increasingly being expected to “differentiate” their teaching–be able to shape the instruction in their class to meet the needs of a range of abilities and learning styles–and the whole notion of intelligence being a fixed ability that can be measured by IQ tests is being questioned, most successful private schools have a clear sense of what kind of student they are best able to serve and frequently do admissions testing to make sure a potential student falls within this range. It can be crushing for a child to be placed in a school where the academic expectations are far above his or her current ability to reach them and intellectually deadening to be in one where the work is not adequately challenging. Ask what range of students a school is designed to serve and whether your child will fit into it.
3. Will Your Child Need Learning Support?
How does the school handle students with learning disabilities? We fortunately live in an age when educators now understand that a student can be extremely intelligent, but have learning differences that the student will need help compensationg for. What is the school’s policy towards such students? Is it willing to work with them and make accommodations for them? Does it have personnel on the faculty whose job is to support such students?
4. How Does the School Teach and How Does It Believe Students Learn Best?
In the 20th Century, schools were frequently divided between progressive schools which emphasized stimulating students’ innate curiosity through engagement in larger themes, exploration, and hands-on learning and frequently minimized the mastery of basic skills, while traditional schools emphasized mastery of basic skills, but often with no connection to larger themes or ideas. Today, most schools have elements of both the and unite the best elements of progressive education—problem or inquiry based learning and, when appropriate, experiential or hands-on learning—with an emphasis on teaching students the essential academic skills they will need for success at the next level. Despite this, it is worthwhile asking what a school’s approach to teaching and learning is to make sure you are comfortable with it. While some students flourish in an inquiry based curriculum, others prefer and need more direct instruction.
5. A Clearly Articulated Curriculum
The curriculum is the essential road map that guides teachers of all subjects in their work with your child and shows how the school accomplishes its mission. It should make clear the major goals for each year in each subject, the work that will accomplish it, and the core skills that will be learned in each class and each grade. In addition, the curriculum should show how the goals in one grade build upon those learned in previous years and prepare a child well for success in the following year.
While a good private school will allow teachers to be creative in how they accomplish the goals of the curriculum—that is frequently one of the main attractions of teaching at a private school—the major objectives should be clear. While a school’s Admissions Office will not usually have a detailed curriculum on hand, it should be able to show you the curriculum in broad outline.
6. Arts and Extracurriculars
Along with offering the traditional academic courses, many private schools offer an arts program (art, music, drama) as well as athletics after school. Such programs provide students additional opportunities to discover their gifts and talents and to enjoy genuine success, even if the student is never going to be at the top of the class academically. In addition, most schools, especially beginning in Middle and High School, have clubs and other activities (e.g. student government, newspaper, yearbook, Model UN, debate, etc.) that offer students opportunities to explore new areas and develop leadership skills. Ask what a school offers in this area and make sure that, if your child has a particular interest in one of these, the school can accommodate it.
While the days of sadistic teachers and headmasters like those found in the pages of Charles Dickens are fortunately behind us, the difference in atmosphere between schools can be striking. While all schools should be filled with teachers who genuinely love students and strive to help them succeed in meeting high expectations, each school nevertheless has its own ethos. Some schools are more relaxed, places where students are allowed to move about the school without a hall pass and follow a dress code rather than wearing uniforms, while others believe a more disciplined, buttoned-down atmosphere is better. When you visit a potential school, try to get a sense of the school’s atmosphere and make sure it is one that you and your child will find comfortable.
The heart and soul of any school is its faculty. They, more than anyone else, will determine the quality and nature of your child’s education. Learn from the Admissions Office as much as possible about the faculty and the qualities the school seeks when it hires new teachers. How long have most faculty been at the school? How do the faculty salaries compare with local and regional standards (although most private schools pay less than local public schools, one that pays far below that may not be able to recruit the best faculty)? Does the school have funds to provide ongoing professional development for its faculty? Is there an evaluation system in place that helps teachers grow professionally and identifies weaknesses that need improvement?
9. Be Sure to Meet the Principal
Most private schools have, in addition to a Head of School (Headmaster) who guides the whole institution, a Principal who is responsible for each division—Lower School, Middle School and Upper or High School. While the Head of School is important, the principal of each division is just as crucial in leading their division, setting the tone and direction, and helping solve problems. If there is an issue of any sort that arises with your child, the principal along with the classroom teacher will be the main person you deal with. Make sure you are comfortable with this person and that he or she is someone who welcomes communication from parents.
Private schools are largely free from state regulation and requirements that govern public schools. Nevertheless, a good private school will belong to an organization which accredits private schools and visits them on a regular basis to make sure the school is living up to the standards of the accrediting organization. Be sure to ask what organizations the school is accredited by and when the school’s last accrediting visit was.
11. Standardized Testing
In addition to accreditation, does the school give standardized tests that allow it to see how your child and the school as a whole compare with similar schools regionally and nationally? Because these tests are so time consuming, most schools do not give them every year. But do make sure that the school does standardized testing regularly and that it shares the results with parents.
All private schools charge tuition and this tuition will normally go up each year. Wile a number of schools have financial aid for families who cannot afford the tuition, many do not. Are you comfortable with the tuition you will be expected to pay? In addition, most schools encourage parents to contribute to the school’s fundraising efforts according to their means. Tuition almost never covers the full cost of running a school and most schools rely upon annual giving from parents (frequently referred to as the “Annual Fund”) to meet the annual budget.
14. College Acceptance
If a school goes through 12th grade, one of its main priorities is helping students gain admission to and succeed in a college that is appropriate for them. While parents sometimes expect a school to be able to guarantee that their child will be admitted to a particular college, this is truly impossible as there are too many factors beyond a school’s control in the college admissions process to guarantee admission to a specific school. But what a school can do is provide a list of colleges to which its students have been admitted in the past few years. Are the colleges represented ones that you would want to see your child attend? Does the school have someone on staff whose job is college counseling and who is truly knowledgeable about the college admissions process?
Good communication between school and home is one of the most important factors in the success of any child’s education. What kinds of regular communication does the school promise? If your child suddenly begins to decline academically, who will contact you? How often are report cards or progress reports sent out? Normally, the communication between teachers and home is most frequent in Lower School, but gradually becomes less frequent as the child becomes more independent and progresses into Middle School and Upper School. Nevertheless, make sure that the school is committed to good communication with you about your child at all levels.
Finding a good private school for your child may be time consuming and sometimes daunting, but hang in there and remember that it’s not about finding “the right school” but one that is a good match for your child. And through the process of researching the next step in your child’s education, you yourself will gain an invaluable education in what makes one school different from another. Good luck!